I was delighted when Jody and her husband Mark sat down at our table at the Christmas Bird Count dinner on Saturday evening, December 20th. Before we had even started eating, Jody asked what I was doing during my retirement years, so I told her about peaceful societies and this website. She expressed interest and asked what observations I could make about them. I replied by quickly sharing some hasty generalizations.
Although talk in the banquet room among the other 25 birdwatchers from the local Audubon chapter focused mostly on red tails and winter wrens, I was hardly paying attention. I kept thinking that I needed to find better answers to Jody’s question. So I’ve spent the last month looking over a decade’s worth of news and reviews published in this website—well over a thousand stories at this point. I wanted to see what developments and changes have occurred among the 25 peaceful societies portrayed here. What generalizations could be safely made as of January 20, 2015?
The website was based on the best scholarly evidence available as of 2004. The News and Reviews feature was conceived as a way of keeping the website up to date and of providing a freshness that should help appeal to visitors. But the stories since this website opened to the public on January 20, 2005, have also added some new perspectives about the processes of building peacefulness.
One generalization that emerges from this month-long review is the fact that some of these societies are committed to developing better, more advanced schooling for their children. At the same time, they want to preserve the best of their own peaceful traditions. People want their kids to be able to make choices about the most important aspects of modernity available to them, yet to continue to value their own cultures. For example, several news reports described the development of some schools in a Buid community. It is a story about a commitment to both worlds.
A news report in 2006 referred to the death of a generous, elderly Buid farmer named Laki Iwan who had donated land so his community could build schools. The Buid got behind the project, the schools thrived, and the people came to realize that schooling was an excellent way to help them cope with the dominant Filipino people. Buid elders saw modern education as a key to the survival of their own way of life.
But the Buid also made sure that the school staff came from their own communities, or from the other Mangyan societies, the indigenous peoples of Mindoro Island in the Philippines. Everyone involved with the local schools emphasizes the importance of teaching the children the usual Western school subjects, but within the context of their traditional cultural values. There is nothing wrong with teaching the poems of Shakespeare, but the kids should also learn about their own love poetry, called ambahan, which is still sometimes written by the Buid themselves.
Another example would be the Ju/’hoansi, who have made a similar commitment to teaching their children about their own culture and traditions as well as the subjects of the modern world, such as math and Western languages. However, some of the peaceful societies, such as the Semai, have not been as fortunate, since states like Malaysia have been indifferent to the educational needs of the Orang Asli (indigenous) people. In other words, the news is not all positive, by any means.
News stories during the past decade point to the possibility that the processes of maintaining peacefulness themselves can change for some of these societies. A good example was a report in 2012 that discussed the beliefs of the Paliyan people, who are known for resisting aggression passively. They turn the other cheek when threatened, as one Paliyan man said, an approach that is clearly similar to that of nonresistant Christians such as the Amish and the Hutterites.
That passive nonresistance differs significantly from the active nonresistance, Satyagraha, which Gandhi advocated—marches, sit-ins, and the like. He considered passive nonresistance as a sign of weakness, while Satyagraha, in his view, was a better way of resisting oppression through shows of strength. But he probably didn’t know about the peaceful peoples of India such as the Paliyans.
That 2012 news story made it clear that Paliyan reactions to oppression by the dominant peoples of India—fleeing into the forests—were not necessarily the only courses of action open to them. Some Paliyans participated in a massive march by tribal peoples on New Delhi, protesting for their rights to fair treatment and for the lands that are due to them by law. Satyagraha. However, the active nonviolence of Satyagraha and the passive nonresistance of the Paliyans were not as widely different as Gandhi apparently thought.
It was now clear from that news, and the successful conclusion of the march a few days later, that Gandhi’s approach did work, at least to some degree, although one Paliyan woman was dismissive of the government’s promises. When they returned to their homes, the Paliyans could more easily move back and forth between both approaches to resisting oppression in order to improve their own situations.
The news stories have also highlighted an outstanding feature of many of the peaceful societies: a deeply-held respect for women and girls. This sense of respect appears to have strengthened in some of them over the past decade. A news story from 2012 reported that there are signs in both the Birhor and the Yanadi communities of eastern India that women and girls are highly valued, at least by many men and boys in their societies.
An even better example was provided by a news story about the situation of women in Ladakh compared to the rest of India. In most of the nation, they often act in a servile fashion toward men; in contrast, Ladakhi women are normally confident, self-possessed, and highly respected in their communities. But the reporter described the changes that are taking place.
Ladakhi women are forming self-help groups in their villages to advance their own issues and to protect their already reasonably secure positions. After completing household tasks each morning, women join the village self-help groups, where they make their own products to further increase their personal incomes. These self-help groups are assisting the women to keep up with changing economic forces that affect rural Ladakh, and in the process they are spreading awareness of much-needed improvements such as better sanitation and health practices. And, just as critically, they are helping the women maintain their confidence and self-respect.
The news and reviews over the past ten years have provided examples of an aversion for conflicts, and strategies for resolving them, that still characterize many of the peaceful societies. For instance, a news report from Southwestern Tanzania described a rural Fipa village where a farmer was impounding the cattle of neighbors when the animals wandered onto his fields. He was attempting to fine his neighbors for damages.
Instead of acting aggressively toward him, the community went to considerable lengths to avoid more trouble. They organized a conflict resolution meeting with a regional official to try and resolve the situation. Similarly, on the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, the people reportedly retain to this day their historic aversion to conflicts and violence: crime is almost nonexistent among the Tristan Islanders.
The news reports have touched on issues that were not initially included in the 25 encyclopedia entries about the individual societies, though they are interesting nonetheless. A number of articles have covered the ties of these peoples with the land they live on, the forests they cherish, and the wildlife with which they share the earth. Some peaceful people are birdwatchers: many Amish in Ohio are enthusiastic about the hobby and a group of Kadar in southwestern India excel as field assistants in a hornbill research project.
However, the people in many of these societies must cope with threats to their existence from outside forces such as dam builders, loggers, government agencies, armed rebel insurgents, invaders, military units, and mining companies. News stories point out that some of those people are aware of the potential benefits of solar energy and the perils of global climate change.
The stories are not 100 percent hopeful or positive—some of them record acts of violence and the erosion of traditional beliefs and practices. But they are human societies after all, so imperfections can only be expected. The website and its updating news stories highlight what those 25 societies really are. How they used to be peaceful is important, but so are the ways that they are struggling to maintain their traditions and to cope with the changes that they see around them, or hear on their radios, or read about on their mobile devices.
If I see Jody at one of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society meetings this spring, or at next December’s CBC dinner, I will be prepared to provide a more thorough answer to her question. I’ll also remember to tell her about the help provided over the past ten years by the four academic reviewers for this website, Robert Knox Dentan, Douglas Fry, Dale Hess, and Leslie Sponsel, and the frequent assistance provided by our two technical consultants, Jeffrey Suydam and Matthew Albright, without whom the website could not exist. Of course, perhaps my half-formed answers back on December 20th were good enough for her, so we may confine our conversations to blue jays and bluebirds instead.
Bruce Bonta, Website Author and Administrator